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On Rewatching “Monty Python” and Mocking the French

 

In the first moments of the television documentary Typically British, director Stephen Frears mentions French auteur Francois Truffaut’s famous suggestion that there was “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain’.” Frears’ response? “Bollocks to Truffaut.”[1] Indeed as Alan Lovell declares in his essay “The British Cinema: The Known Cinema?” while critics often offer the belief that “comparable cinemas like the French or Italian have, over their whole history, been superior to the British cinema … the differences are only relative ones. British cinema isn’t a special case. There isn’t some fundamental British cinematic deficiency which needs to be accounted for.”[2] While I don’t want to pit the merits of French and British film against each other—I love Brief Encounter and La Règle du jeu equally— I begin to think about the ways in which which one aspect of English cinematic tradition excavates and illuminates the longstanding quagmire of tension between the two schools…after a recent tear of watching British parodies on YouTube.

Now: the British satirical system is anchored both by acute identification of pretense and a keen sense of self-reflexivity. In recent years, self-parody has come in the form of such British gems as Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dean and Hot Fuzz—during which Pegg pinpoints and deconstructs such axiomatic behavior as the English “stiff upper lip” and tenuous relationship with the “action” flicks of Hollywood—as well as That Mitchell and Webb Look, which mocks diverse subjects that range from Snooker to the films produced by David O. Selznick and never underestimates the intelligence of its viewers. While both programs offer contemporary examples of this manifestation, I’m drawn to the nascent players of this movement: Monty Python.

Foot used in "The Flying Circus." Wikimedia Commons.

Foot used in “The Flying Circus.” Wikimedia Commons.

Through their various television series, movies, and theatrical performances, the ensemble combined slapstick humor with acute social commentary and criticism, yet always seemed to address the charged energy of the Anglo-French rivalry. In Season 2, Episode 10 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the comedy troupe directly confronts the tension between British and French cinema. The sketch in question, entitled “French Subtitled Film,” addresses many of the major complaints levied at the “La Nouvelle Vague,” or French New Wave, such as its seemingly inherent incomprehensibility because of the tendency to play with cinematic form,  its obsolete and abstract dialogue, and its unique methods of theoretical expression—the use of tracking shots and montage are especially key in this associative grouping. While the episode primarily targets these seemingly abstruse techniques and subjects, it does not shy away from the discernible British inclinations to feign understanding or to manifest a polemic concerning “high-art,” so to speak. Thus the sketch itself ridicules not only the French New Wave, but also the British relationship to it.

Monty Python has made a career out of mocking the French, in part because the British have an extensive, vitriolic history with their neighbors to the south; Truffaut’s commentary is mere appendage to the longstanding acerbity between the two, which has spanned several wars and manifested constant cultural competition since the Norman conquest. Such parodies as the “The French Waiter,” “French Lecture on Sheep-Aircraft,” “La Marche Futile,” and the various insults that pepper Monty Python and the Holy Grail identify the proverbial criticisms volleyed between the two cultures—the pretension of the French versus the passive aggression of the British, the former’s tendency to be “rude” while the latter leans towards constant apology—however, the intelligence of these episodes can often be lost on the viewer because of the juxtaposition between more surrealistic concepts and slapstick gags. Take, for example, the flying sheep sketch from the series one episode entitled “Sex and Violence”; the transition from a quintessentially British observational moment, in which a “City Gent” and  “Rustic Gent” converse over the concept of flying sheep and their “commercial possibilities,” to the French exposition on said potentiality through the use of diagrams, costumes—the infamous mustache switch to be exact—and broad physicality, immediately juxtaposes the two cultures in a comedic manner.[3] The underlying humor is simultaneously absurdist and complex—it is no small feat to conceptualize the absurd evolution from “flying sheep” for purposes of escape, to their so-called profitability as transportational or storage units in the case of this improbable, though “not impossible,” development— and this absurdity manifests itself through the rapid and mockable pseudo-French that the characters speak, and their tendencies to adopt traditional French stereotypes, including the striped “mime” outfit and excessive gesticulation.

The same refusal of additional meaning is not possible in the “French Subtitled Film” parody, in part because it both accurately reflects many of the techniques and content exposited in Nouvelle Vague. Unlike some of the more absurdist attempts—such as the previously mentioned “flying sheep” sketch collection or “La Marche Futile”—this satire has an exacted purpose and a direct correlative critique alongside the group’s standard exposition of absurdity. The sketch starts out with an authentic Nouvelle Vague diegesis; it begins with a long tracking shot of over a minute, covering a rubbish dump setting where, in the midst of the garbage, a Bardot-esque young woman sits with a cabbage on her lap, suggestive perhaps of the sexuality showcased in French film of this era.[4] In tradition of the New Wave—many of the films during this era had miniscule budgets and were therefore shot unprofessionally or improvised, creating an entirely new environment for the scene—the camera seems hand-held and destabilized, as it shakes and moves like a loosely-made home video. In this same shot, a man called Stig (according to various scripts) finally enters, attempting conversation with the young woman; their dialogue is stilted and truncated, made up of short questions or observations of the man, and simple one word answers or noises from the woman.  A sample of this dialogue would have the following trajectory:

STIG: Bonjour.

GIRL: Bonjour.

STIG: Il fait beau ce matin.

GIRL: Oui, Oui.

STIG: D’accord.

Such asinine dialogue continues, with Stig looking uncomfortably at the camera every few lines. Additionally, all dialogue is subtitled; even something as facile as a laugh needs explanation of the “English” viewers. As noted before, this scene is continuous: the first cut does not occur until the scene moves to the “authentic” British film-school analysis with Phil, played by Eric Idle:

PHIL: (Eric Idle) Brian Distel and Brianette Zatapathique there in an improvised scene from Jean Kenneth Longueur’s new movie ‘Le Fromage Grand’. Brian and Brianette symbolize the breakdown in communication in our modern society in this exciting new film and Longueur is saying to us, his audience, ‘go on, protest, do something about it, assault the manager, demand your money back’. Later on in the film, in a brilliantly conceived montage, Longueur mercilessly exposes the violence underlying our society when Brian and Brianette again meet on yet another rubbish dump.[5]

Here, the group’s mockery takes shape; from the stereotypical French names—“Longueur,” for example, means “a tedious passage of literature or performing art,” especially ridiculing New Wave auteurs—to the subtly incredulity concerning French film as a statement rather than an actually enjoyable viewing experience, The Pythons actively question the value of this supposed “high” art form. The title of the “film” adds the absurdity; “Large cheese” has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the sketch. Perhaps most cutting of all is the setting for their internal film itself; the group situates the characters on a literal pile of garbage, not once, but twice.

It would be easy to leave it there; The Pythons make their point, and, moving into the “second half” of the film analysis, the “brilliantly conceived montage” can appear as little more than members of the troupe acting out arbitrary and haphazard scenes of violence to “contribute” to the capricious course of the French cinematic tradition. Though one might laugh during the post-analysis scenes, where similarly truncated dialogue is interspersed with intercut quick shots of scenes from war films and other external moments of violence, this montage does beg for some analysis, no matter how much the absurdity and ridiculous the content may be, thus as would be the attempt to resist further exploration. But the presence of an analysis at all within the course of this sketch suggests the tendency of humans to attempt to explain everything, even when it seems utterly nonsensical.

Feeding into the New Wave ideology, their dialogue, though seemingly absurd and pointless, does indeed expose a deeper level of existentialism, neither building upon itself nor entirely pointless; instead, it seems to embrace the total absurdity of human existence with such repeated lines as “It’s a nice day” and “Do you come here often?” Monty Python writers navigate the dual line between ridicule and homage here, as such dialogue is indeed possible in many of Jean-Luc Godard’s films. This brings the viewer into a deeper, more complex realization; the replication of French New Wave mise-en-scene—however humorous and ridiculously intended and enacted—forces the viewer into the same predicament of verfremdungseffekt, or the alienation effect, that Bertolt Brecht theorized in his essay “On Chinese Acting” and that filmmakers like Godard employed.[6] The uncomfortable, painfully aware relationship of the figures in this sketch to the camera triggers a sense of critical distance for the viewer, no matter the absurdity of the content. It is with this detachment that a viewer can remove oneself from the comedy—however unwisely—and look into the more subtle narrative of the sketch.

The final lines of the “film” are repeated declarations of “Je t’aime” or “I love you”: this is taken from, amongst other films, Godard’s Une Femme Mariée. In her essay on Godard, Susan Sontag identifies a myriad of techniques, motifs and cinematic tools the director employs throughout his body of work. Some of these are general—Godard enjoys exploring the futility and fragmentation of modern life through the difficulties of language and communication—while others hone in on the specific—he explores previously thought to be oblique and obtrusive cutting techniques, changing the form of his film to overwhelm, dominate and direct the content. In one scene in Une Femme Mariée, Godard uses obscure shots of the protagonist Charlotte’s body—namely her legs and her hands—that are pieced together in montage form, in order to structure an encounter with her lover, the artistic Robert. The sequence consists of four fades that truncate the linear trajectory of the narrative, and fragment the couple’s conversation. Godard consciously refuses to show the couple together and facing outwards in this sequence, yet these visual patterns tend more towards the arbitrary than the symbolic; though one would like to claim that this visual fragmentation somehow represents the nature of their relationship as well, Godard resists any explicit condoning of this analysis, sticking to, what Sontag describes as, “the labor of endless self-questioning, which becomes a constitutive element in the art work.”[7] Instead, these scenes seem to bolster the underlying theme of free-association that permeates the fragile narrative arc of the film. The “resolution” or anti-resolution of this montage mimics Sontag’s own observations of Godard’s narrative style, especially in the ways in which he rejects the “formal conventions of film narration based on the nineteenth-century novel—cause-and-effect sequences of events, climactic scenes, logical denouements.”[8] Instead, he relies on free association, self-questioning and arbitrary solutions both to create an aesthetic and realistic picture, providing several snapshots that dissect and mimic modern life.

This narration provides context for the ridiculous, though plausible, exploration of violence, war, and the fragility of human life through this sketch. The characters—and the audience—laugh because of its seeming nonsensicality; however, they could be laughing at the absurdity of life. This manifests both through the acceptance of futility in life and the mockery of the sketch externally. Thus the final “bomb” that suddenly kills both figures does play into the concept of narrative fragility, and relates to the montage in that life itself is interspersed with cruelty, pain, and ultimate death. The British cinematic host “Phil” once again offers his in-depth—yet possibly misguided—analysis: “Pretty strong meat there from Longueur who is saying, of course, that ultimately materialism, in this case the Webb’s Wonder lettuce, must destroy us all.”[9]

Though the sketch initially seems to be only a vehicle for French mockery, the very fact that the group includes a British “academic” figure to analyze the scene within the sketch opens the door for a sense of self-reflexivity in this critique; the New Wave may indeed rely on the acceptance of absurdity and the experimentation of form and content, but even those mocking it will still attempt to explain it, purely due to human nature. Instead of validating British cinema or their “Angry Young Man” attitude of the same era, the sketch, in part, seeks merely to expose the aspects of French cinema that simultaneously propel the filmmakers and enrage those not indoctrinated into the movement. At the same time, it mocks the British and overarching the human need for interpretation of the work, even when analysis seems either futile or utterly unnecessary. After all, it is only human nature to attempt to understand such things, and human fallacy that attempts to—self-reflexively—pick apart that which may be best left alone.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch “The Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers and try not to overanalyse that one.

-ht


[1] Typically British, DVD, directed by Stephen Frears (1997, London/Moscow: Karmen Video, 1997). Also, I’ve decided to use footnotes because I miss writing papers. Just go with it.

[2] Alan Lovell, “The British Cinema: The Known Cinema?” The British Cinema Book. Robert Murphy, ed. (London: British Film Institute, 2008), 242.

[3] “Sex and Violence” Monty Python’s Flying Circus, DVD, directed by Ian MacNaughton and Terry Hughes. (1969, New York: A&E Home Video, 2005).

[4] “Scott of the Antarctic” Monty Python’s Flying Circus, DVD, directed by Ian MacNaughton and Terry Hughes. (1970, New York: A&E Home Video, 2005).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bertolt Brecht, “On Chinese Acting” The Tulane Drama Review 6, no. 1 (Sept., 1961), 130-131.

[7] Susan Sontag. “Godard” Great Film Directors: A Critical Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 381.

[8] Ibid, pp. 370.

[9] “Sex and Violence” Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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